The author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel "The Lowland" has been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Photo: Getty
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Writers of Colour: Shortlisted for prizes because of their individual worth, nothing else

Knee-jerk reactions to representations of skin colour and sex have become so commonplace that individual worth is increasingly overlooked in place of head counts. But a good book just needs energy, soul, and fabulous writing.

We have always been told not to judge a book by its cover, so when did it become acceptable to judge a book by its author? Or, more specifically, the author’s sex and ethnic origins?

Last week the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Award for non-fiction was announced which prompted a blog complaining that the list was: “all-white and only five women”.

As a British-Indian woman writer, neither element had occurred to me. My reactions ranged from being thrilled to see William Dalrymple’s Return of a King after I’d helped edit the manuscript, to immediately buying Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s The Pike, and reminding myself to finish Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. Certainly it’s permissible to dispute the nominated books if there are glaringly obvious absentees. But the complaints were never followed up with a list of alternative authors and books or reasoned argument in favour of either. In a blog about judging the prize, Mary Beard wrote that it’s impossible not to reflect on the different male and female styles in non-fiction but that ultimately “would I recommend this book to a friend”?

Knee-jerk reactions to representations of skin colour and sex have become so commonplace that individual worth is increasingly overlooked in place of colour-coordinated, gender-related head counts. Naturally when it comes to Parliament, or councils and committees with whom my fate rests, I want to see members chosen who best represent my voice and who reflect the diversity of the society in which we live.

But if I thought I had been hired for my job because I have brown skin, wear a bra, and make the masthead look exotic, I’d be nothing short of livid. I should be there because I’m the best candidate for the role, I can edit more tightly than anyone else who applied, and I understand what constitutes a dangling modifier. After all, I want to feel like my two degrees were worth my time and hard work.

And of course this isn’t just restricted to ethnic origins or gender.

Only recently an article appeared in the Guardian expressing outrage that a grammar-school pupil who had achieved 7 A* at A-level had been rejected by Merton College, Oxford, yet accepted by Harvard and Stanford. Oxford’s standard rejection letter revealed little about the reason behind their decision, but it’s a gross accusation to cry blanket elitism without scratching beneath the surface. Perhaps the pupil didn’t interview well, maybe the other candidates – in addition to having similar grades – were county tennis captains, debating champions or musical geniuses. Only recently I’ve seen job applications attached to CVs packing first-class Oxbridge degrees, enviable internships and numerous awards. These included: a food writer who misspelt Gordon Ramsay; a fact-checker who highlighted his 14-hour “shits” on Newsnight and a travel writer who turned up 90 minutes late for an interview because she couldn’t find her way to the office. The decisions to hire, or not to hire, boiled down to the individual’s worth and their suitability for the position.

Which brings me back to books.

Two days ago the Man Booker shortlist was announced. “Only one British author on shortlist” said the Daily Mail. And when this year’s Guardian First Book Award shortlist revealed seven women and four men, one blog declared, “yet more vindication that the reading public want female literary talent to be recognised”. Well, no, not really, that’s what the Women’s Prize for Fiction is for. The argument that awards should represent women as 50 per cent of the population holds no water. Women might make up 50 per cent of the population – but do they make up 50 per cent of the writing population? Currently the Top 100 books on Amazon contain only 26 books written by women – 27 if you include Robert Galbraith/ J K Rowling – which seems a better indication of what the book-buying public is reading.

A good book needs energy, soul, and fabulous writing, and it doesn’t matter where its author comes from or whether they have to stand or sit to pee. The last two books I read were Jim Crace’s Harvest because the opening paragraph was at once lyrically beautiful, intriguing and unnerving, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland because I’ve loved her other work. And unlike V S Naipaul, I can’t claim to be able to identify female prose from the outset – if at all. George Eliot aka Mary Ann Evans used a pen name to make sure her works were taken seriously, and I remember aged nine, reading Silas Marner at school, adoring the book and being none the wiser about the sex of the writer.

It’s not about where the author was born, what passport they hold or whether they are women or men, it’s about an individual’s worth and their words should speak for themselves.

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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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